Bernard W. Bell, The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition

Bell, Bernard W. The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. U of

Massachusetts P, 1987.

Summary of Work
This work gives a critical analysis and historical overlook of the development of the African American novel from slave narratives to the novels written in the 1970s during Postmodernism. The work takes a mix of historical, anthropological, and cultural analysis as Bell analyzes the development of the African American novel. Bell determines that there are four unique qualities that run throughout the AfAm novel that separate it from the regular American novel: double-consciousness, referring to the biracial identity of black people as black and American; socialized ambivalance, meaning “the dancing attitudes of Americans of African ancestry between integration and separation, a shifting identification between the values of the dominant white and subordinate black cultural systems as a result of institutionalized racism” (xvi); double vision, which is the use of irony and parody in the art form in order to deal with the hardships of life; and folklore, or the artistic forms and communicative process which are unique to African American cultural communities.

For the purposes of my area of study, I have skipped over the chapters with a focus on nineteenth century writers and moved into the twentieth century writers. The beginning of the twentieth century into WWI was the era of naturalism for the novel, which kept some of the sensationalism of romanticism from the nineteenth century, but focused much more on social issues of the day and spoke more to reality. This is particularly true of African American novels, which “combine the themes of love, marriage, and success with the protagonist’s struggle for freedom from color and caste discrimination in a cyclical quest to fully realize his or her rights and potential for growth as a person of biracial and bicultural identity” (79). These ideals were further promoted by the idea of having a Talented Tenth, the New Negro movement, and a higher class of art from African American artists that harbored elitism even as white America was moving away from those ideals itself. Two authors representative of naturalism during this time period are W.E.B. Du Bois, who’s novels failed in being very enjoyable reads, but succeeded in providing a sociological take on current issues; James Weldon Johnson’s novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man was a psychological form of naturalism which enjoyed enough success to initially be considered an actual autobiography. They dealt with the same problems of existing in a white world and succeeding as a black man, especially the irony of interracial relations when one could pass as white. They deal with the cultural tensions and biases of the rising middle class of black people in America.

With the Harlem Renaissance came a new belief of what black art forms, especially written forms, should do: they should celebrate black life, achievement, and show the complexities of black cultural existence. It was an era where black men were still being lynched in large numbers each year, and race tensions were as high as ever, but expression without fear or shame was a driving theme of the Harlem Renaissance writers.

Jean Toomer represents poetic realism at this time period. Considering himself neither white nor black but an American, he often came into conflict with others over the labeling of his work and what he was doing. He termed himself an essentialist rather than a realist or classicist, particularly meaning that he believed in the transcendent nature of the soul and that he believed in truth through intuition, and that he was a believer in Eastern practices of mysticism. Cane, Toomer’s masterwork, is a mix of prose and poetry, creating a poetic novel that on the surface may seem pastoral, but is much deeper than that because there can be no return to the country life or pre-industrial life, and the characters are complex. Mystical visions of life combine with folklore and cultural history and knowledge to create an undercurrent of a metaphysical journey. His work modeled those of Robert Frost and Sherwood Anderson, and he, like them, worked on experimenting with utilizing regional and local materials in high artistic works.

During the time of both nationalism and assimilationism, with the cry for a back-to-Africa movement in Garvey and a melting pot theory on the other hand, authors such as Nella Larsen began to explore what it meant to have dual identities as a response to both of these movements. Against both assimilationist beliefs and the nationalist formations, Larsen’s books explore what happens to people when they force themselves to accept one or the other of these options.

During this time in the Harlem Renaissance there was also a turn to Folk Romance, or more specifically forms of ancestralism or pastoralism and even at times primitivism within novelistic writing. The writing was meant “to express the historical struggle of black Americans to achieve a dynamic synthesis of their individual and collective double-consciousness” (113). Thus, the African American pastoral was different than the regular pastoral because it encompassed both rural and urban settings, utilizing the near past to discuss the African American psychological and social struggles. Zora Neale Hurston’s work is full of folk romance. This could be in part because of her lifetime refusal to relinquish her heritage and folk origins that made up her identity. Their Eyes Were Watching God is the pinnacle of her work, her best folk romance. The work explores the life of Janie and her dreams and hopes as she marries different men and those dreams either get taken away through violent means to herself or to the one she loves (Tea-Cake having to be shot because he attacks her after getting rabies). The narration switches from third person to first person and has a variety of different narrators (with mixed success), making Hurston better able to discuss the sacrifices that black women have made from slavery forward in order to survive and help their men, and what happens when black women refuse to sacrifice and instead pursue their own interests. The whole of the novel also centers the oral folk traditions of the black South.

Unlike Hurston and other folk romantics, authors like Langston Hughes stuck to a form of folk realism that looked narrowly at specific, everyday lives of black people, focusing on common social rituals rather than larger, more universal truths. While the stories in isolation do not tell all of the black experience, they do offer perhaps a successfully “realistic portrayal of the ways in which ordinary black folk used religion, music, humor, and language to cope with adversity than their counterparts” (129).

With the coming of the Great Depression and the rise of the ideas of socialism and communism in America with it, there was a greater realization of the disunity of the races than there had been in the 1920s, with as many as 60 percent more black people being unemployed than white people (152). While many black people and their leaders were wary of the Communist party because of their oversimplification of racial issues in favor of economic issues, Richard Wright became a party member because he felt it gave him and black people a chance to gain a unity that had been lacking, and that the unity would help solve many of the racial and economic problems of the time. The writers of this time also benefitted from the Federal Writer’s Project, and Hurston, Ellison, Wright, and many other black writers were able to get funding for their writing projects.

Wright was a naturalist writer, and he rejected “both the concept of black consciousness and the values of Afro-American culture,” which is evidenced in his writing, including Native Son (155). In Native Son, he looks closely at poor black life in the South Side of Chicago, and discusses fear and freedom as sources of weakness and strength: weakness in the bad things it leads to, strength in the power of action. While many critics see the work as part of black nationalism, the double-consciousness throughout the work would speak against that theory or belief. Instead, the work shows how racist beliefs that white people have consistently spoken and acted upon have become internalized in black people to the point that they may even go commit crimes like Bigger Thomas as an act of self-realization or freedom. The themes and issues Wright explores in Native Son make his work the “naturalistic vision of the social paradoxes that bind white and black Americans” (166). The work is a play between Marxism and Freudian psychology.

The 1950s saw a move from Naturalism to a revitalization of cultural discussions of myth, rituals, and double-consciousness of the black experience. At this point, black authors began writing and experimenting with non-racial themes as well. Authors such as Ralph Ellison discuss that they came to the realization that what T.S. Eliot was doing with cultural myth and ritual could be done in black culture as well, and that it could be done with different materials, their own cultural heritage. Ellison’s one novel, Invisible Man, solidifies this change in novel writing as Ellison creates a modern epic by utilizing African-American history and cultural traditions, particularly traditions of blues and jazz music. In Ellison’s work, African Americans become a metaphor for the human condition.

James Baldwin’s novels carry on a similar work, but through religious overtones and discussions, which he was better able to carry on because of his childhood religious background. Baldwin’s early interviews, writings, and discussions look very similar to Richard Wright’s beliefs outlined in Native Son, and indeed, Baldwin’s self-professed literary father was Wright. However, he grew as a novelist and became interested in focusing on more components of black life than the political, even though he still kept the narrow viewpoint of Wright by exploring specific narratives of specific characters rather than a more general search for a generalized black experience. His work is “spiritual and sexual,” exploring “not the terrifying possibilities of hatred, but the terrifying possibilities of love” (219). He relies on the social structures and myths given him in black churches and in black music as he writes his narrative, integrating more cultural discussions than were prevalent in naturalism. Specifically, Go Tell It on the Mountain is a story that exposes “the moral foundations of the institutional pillars of the black community” (224).

With the rise of the Black Power and Black Arts movements, and the rise of feminism and the Women’s Rights Movement, the African-American novel made a move toward Modernism and Neorealism as a response to the turbulent times. While Neorealism kept the forms of realism, it was “also a philosophical and political attitude toward the human condition” (246). Thus, there is far more hope for humanity in African American novels of this strain than of the novels written by other races of people. Alice Walker embodies this hope with her work, which seeks to uplift both men and women (leading her to call herself a womanist rather than feminist). Her work splits the line between realism and romance, and The Color Purple in particular utilizes the folk realism and romanticism embodied by the work of Zora Neale Hurston. Her work has a sexual egalitarianism to it that is unique in comparison to other novels written during the same time period.

Poetic realism, the act of realism including “imaginative power, compression, and lyricism of language,” moves toward the problematic reality of reality being largely shaped by consciousness (269). Thus, much like Jean Toomer, those writing in a Poetic Realist tradition are seeking to find the sensations or feelings of truth rather than to lay it out as reality. This form of realism is best embodied in the work of Toni Morrison, who’s Song of Solomon utilizes a nonlinear narrative and haunting tales of the Dead family and their surroundings to discuss the fact that no matter how terribly a race or group of people is treated, it seems like they are never turned into beasts. The poetic language in Sula explores the pain and suffering of African Americans while also exploring the topics of sexuality and freedom in newly-minted linguistic ways.

Finally, when it comes to Postmodernism, the African American novelists depart from the white novelist traditions of the work of art as meaningless and instead “are deeply concerned with fictive visions that focus on the truths of the perversity of American racism and the paradoxes of Afro-American double-consciousness” (284). They reaffirm the power of the folk tradition as a way of seeing and knowing important truths to navigate through the perversities of life. These features mix with fabulation, romance, fantasy, and satire to create the literature of the 1970s and into the 1980s, the time when this book was written. The work of John Edgar Wideman, particularly highlighted by the short story collection Damballah, blurs the distinctions between “history and fiction, novel and romance, orality and literariness” through his blending of “epistle, legend, myth, fable, biography, and autobiography” in his fiction (312). By doing this, he has a recurring theme of understanding that what we think we are is just as, if not more, important than what we actually are when it comes to identity. Ishmael Reed challenges his readers to break free of the idea of a monolithic narrative for the African American novel, and he uses a Neo-Hoodoo aesthetic in order to blend a variety of cultural writing techniques and challenge readers “to be as culturally egalitarian and imaginatively bold as the author” (331).

Discussion of Work
This book’s main strength is in its discussion of these authors and the evolution of the African American novel within the context of social and political happenings: by offering a brief historical overview in tandem with the development of new literary movements and returns to older movements, Bell is able to show how the African American novel is as tied to them as is the novel in general. The work provides much needed representation of black authorship in a scholarly field that for too long overlooked their additions and achievements and how they influenced the development of the novel. I largely agree with what is said in this work regarding the topics and critical discussions of the authors chosen for the work, and so I have little more to say about it than has been highlighted in the summary. However, I do believe that structurally, the book may be trying to do too much in that it tries to feature too many authors. While it is certainly necessary to offer up multiple authors’ works to show the breadth of the literature from each literary movement, the number of authors chosen leads to less of an in-depth discussion about many of them, and altogether excludes works that might be discussed from other authors.

Richard Chase, The American Novel and Its Tradition

Chase, Richard. The American Novel and Its Tradition. Doubleday, 1957.

Summary of Work
Richard Chase seeks to discuss the development of the American novel as it diverged from the English novel. He states that it is very important to make a distinction between the two traditions, as the English novel seeks to derive social order out of the disparate elements or plot points in the novel and is largely a novel of manners that adheres to social expectations and the unities, whereas the American novel is much more focused on exploring the possibilities and realities of specific, narrow situations and much less interested in wresting order out of the chaos of those events. The American novel, Chase says, has therefore regularly not been a novel as the term has been generally defined, but instead a romance. He states that the novel is a work which focuses mainly on character and the development of that character, whereas the romance focuses mainly on action or plot and has very little character development. The narrators of the novel are more often omniscient and able to display a proper scenery and social sphere that the character develops within, but the romance utilizes a very narrow section of society simply as a backdrop, and the personal motivations and thoughts of the characters take center stage as they go through the plot. This view of the novel is largely the viewpoint of Henry James, the American novelist whom Chase finds to be the greatest American novelist in the history of the American novel. He also gives a brief commentary on melodrama, which is the height of extremes and dualities, saying that the American novel often indulges in such language in order to further plot or explore extreme or peculiar situations.

Of Hawthorne and his work, particularly The Scarlet Letter, Chase says that it is firmly in the category of romance and not the novel, particularly because of the lack of scenery except as backdrop to the main characters in the novel; furthermore, he finds that there is no character development, but rather the characters serve largely as psychological forms and allegory, and they do not change their natures throughout the work. Like James, Chase finds these facts to be somewhat the faults of the novel, although the creation of a psychological novel is, Chase admits, an important and quality development for the American novel. He compares symbol and allegory at this point, stating that allegory functions in its purest form when the readers know what each particular part of the story represents so that they can always refer back to that representation, which is never changing: this is Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. On the other hand, symbols are a fusion of many meanings, and those meanings change throughout the course of the novel; therefore, the A on Hester Prynne’s chest could be seen as a symbol, but more importantly, the whale in Melville’s Moby Dick is a symbol.

Of Melville’s masterwork Moby Dick, Chase states that while it starts out with high promises of realism to be a novel, it falls into the category of romance, not a novel, and despite its certainly masterful pieces within the whole work, there are many parts that are poorly flung together to fit the emotional fits that befit Ahab and the romance tale of his obsession. Yet in Moby Dick lies a central tenet of American literature: a life of contradictions through experience and a life of ironic perception. These features appear throughout the development of the American novel, and Melville’s work is a perfect example of that. He also terms Moby Dick an epic romance, more akin to the poetry of Homer than the structure of the prose novel because of the melodrama and otherworldly elements it contains.

Chase attributes the development of regionalized language and straightforward diction to the novels of Mark Twain, particularly that of Huckleberry Finn. He states that the colloquial language of the novel forever changed the way American writers approached their characters, swaying from the formal English language and into the representation of the spoken language. Yet even here, Chase asserts that the novel is more of a tragi-comic romance than it is a novel, given the focus on the action and the interior narrative of Huck than on the social atmosphere around him and the unifying of social issues.

Next he discusses novels of manners, which deal with how to navigate social class and fix problematic characters or behaviors, or, if they cannot be fixed, to cast them out. He claims that Jane Austen, while not the most masterful writer, is the master of the purest form of the novel of manners. American novelists, by comparison, Chase finds sorely lacking in ability. He claims that F. Scott Fitzgerald is a second, possibly third rate author who nevertheless he will discuss because he is one of the only people who have successfully attempted a novel of manners in the US. He discusses The Great Gatsby in this sense, calling attention to the discussion of scene and character and the reverse development of Gatsby from an experienced rags to riches man back to a child with idyllic imaginations, while all around him he struggles to integrate into a rich society that has a set of rules he cannot meet or follow, which in combination with his imaginings, leads to his death. Despite the success as a novel of manners, Chase finds Fitzgerald’s style lacking, and he is stymied by the fact that Henry James thought that Fitzgerald did the most for the American novel since Mark Twain.

Finally, Chase discusses three novels by William Faulkner, who he considers to be the second or third best American novelist, second only to James and perhaps third depending on how one compares Mark Twain to Faulkner. The majority of this final chapter is dedicated to The Sound and the Fury, discussing how Faulkner managed to (mostly) successfully provide unique language styles to each of his characters as they tell their part of the story while at the same time offering solid character development over plot, where the plot happens because of character development. Chase finds no language more masterful than Faulkner’s when he knows what his character sounds like, and he also demonstrates the best of American prose with his crafting of Benjy’s narrative through the eyes of an idiot. It shows obsessions, character development, tragedy, and most importantly to befit James’s and Chase’s definition of the novel, provides a creation of order and unity through Dilsey, who is the only character capable of keeping the Compson family from falling apart at the end of its 200-year stint in the South. Furthermore, Chase claims that the only reason that this novel is the greatest novel written up to the point of his writing is because there have been novelists who came before to establish certain mechanical elements or traditions, and that finally there is enough American history available to create a proper background and scenery for character development to take center stage in the American novel. Chase finds the work a transcendence of romance to create an amalgamation of realism, romance, and the qualities of the novel that James laid down.

Discussion of Work
Chase’s book provides important information about how the American novel is viewed in comparison with the English novel; his introduction, which defines specific differences between English and American, novels is useful because it provides a framework from which to view American novels and their development over a century of writing. However, Chase falls prey to worshipping Henry James, finding no issues with him or his writing, seemingly unquestioning of the structure as pure and perfect in form for all to follow. In doing so, he excludes many masterworks from the title of “novel,” instead relegating them to what is implicitly considered and insinuated a lesser form.

His treatment of Hawthorne, Melville, Faulkner, and especially Fitzgerald are full of backhanded compliments or appraisals: it fits perfectly the, “well, they did this or that, but they still will never measure up to James” form that he establishes from the beginning of the novel. The blind spot essentially disables him from seeing, even as he describes the incredible feats of Faulkner, how Faulkner will come to transcend James in their importance of the development of the novel in the twentieth century. It also disables him from understanding how the language of Fitzgerald would come to be recognized as some of the most carefully and well-crafted language and writing of the Jazz Age.

Another failing of this work is that it completely ignores and excludes authors of color. He does mention that Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man exists in passing, but only to state that the tradition he is speaking of has influenced it. He doesn’t even mention anything about the work. Certainly, the development of the American novel was heavily influenced by the writing that came out of the traditions of African American communities, let alone other communities of color. Faulkner would be as much influenced by the stories and cultural traditions of communities of color as he was by Mark Twain, as is evident in his portrayal of the character Dilsey in his work and his intricate discussions of the race issues inherent in the Southern mind. Perhaps these things are overlooked because throughout his work, Chase is insistent that morals and moral teachings and lessons are not meant to be read in the American novel: the American novel is simply an exploration of history and moral lessons that the characters deal with in all their contradictory experiences.

Philip Stevick, The American Short Story 1900 – 1945

Stevick, Philip, Ed. The American Short Story 1900 – 1945. Twayne, 1984.

Summary of Work
This collection of essays overviews the evolution of the American short story through the first half of the twentieth century. Starting with a discussion of a moving into an era of technology and mechanical instruments when previously life had been devoid of many things people of today take for granted (like bathtubs), Philip Stevick says that the writers of the first half of the century became fixated on the issues that came with such modernization and invention.

The first essay discusses the work of Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Willa Cather. While writing styles differed slightly as did topics, all of these authors dealt with how to portray the importance of specific morals in light of a more mechanical world. Cather also made the focus of her work the indomitable spirit of the American pioneers. The short stories worked to form a more general identity of what it meant to be an American and what morals should never be relinquished because they would lead to tragic, heartless, mechanical ends. The chapter concludes with an author that the whole rest of the collection will not stop discussing: Sherwood Anderson.

Although Sherwood Anderson insisted that his work Winesberg, Ohio was a novel, it also served very much as a collection or series of short stories that were seemingly formless, although artfully crafted. Dealing with specific individuals seen through the eyes of the journalist George Willard, the stories deal with more than just morals: they deal with individuals and insist on displaying the loneliness and sexuality of the characters. Those last two, loneliness and sexuality, had yet to be talked about so explicitly in American short story writing, and from the moment Anderson started writing about them so openly, the short story would never be the same.

The era of the 1920s saw a more structured and formulaic short story, with earlier writers lamenting the mechanical way that stories were written in order to gain popular acclaim. Fitzgerald was a master of this formulaic story, crafting his stories to sell and so he would have money while he worked on his novels. Hemingway came to start writing at this time, influenced by Anderson, and he wrote in a straight-to-the-point, short-sentenced prose that took Anderson’s formless story a step further: his stories were also pointless, showing only pieces or vignettes of a story that led nowhere. Yet his stories painted complex pictures of his characters and revealed that a story could defy form and still be artful. His work would come to shape the next generation of writers, who would write more like journalists than formulaic popular writers.

Then, in the period of the 1930s, there was a return from realism and social realism to the romanticism of the nineteenth century. The stories told could be considered strange or exotic or highly emotional, as might be seen in some of the stories told by authors such as Richard Wright and William Faulkner. Wright is part of what the authors detail as a revealing of an invisible group of writers, the African American population. The focus for Wright and many of the writers of this period is the creation of the character as an individual and the deconstruction of the notion of a national identity that could apply to every character. One of the ways this featured in writing of the period was an insistent on writing dialects specific to region. William Faulkner, also strongly influenced by Anderson, was first a novelist and then a short story writer, and yet he forever changed the short story and novel in America the way James Joyce did in Great Britain. Many of his short stories were long and prosaic, the exact opposite of Hemingway, and he strove not for brevity and journalism with an iceberg principle, but instead the creation of legend. His short stories very often became chapters in his novel, and he, building off of Anderson’s work, created an intricate set of stories that build the legend of Yoknapatawpha County and the characters living within it. His form of American Gothic shaped writers who came after him, and indeed, no one wanted to try to better his form, as Flannery O’Connor would state in the 1960s.

Overall, the thread that tied all of these authors together despite their disparate styles was regionalism. The American short story came to represent specific regional cultures throughout the nation, and it did so whether the story was formulaic, journalistic, formless, or legend. Anderson, Hemingway, and Faulkner would come to be the lasting names that defined the evolution of the short story for the first half of the twentieth century, and they became the building blocks for the second half of the century.

Discussion of Work
For the most part, this work gives a good, brief but thorough overview of the development of the short story by discussing the careers of the longest-lasting authors of the time period. While it goes by decade, another quality feature of this critical work is that it admits that the decades are perhaps not the best indicators of a switch in style or literary movement, particularly considering that there were wide variations of what people called realism or social realism, and that was because each author had a different life experience that defined what they saw as “real” to write about. This is why Sherwood Anderson plays a major role in the discussion of each of the authors that come to influence the development of the short story.

The major failing I see in this work is the near complete erasure of minority authors who made an impact on the writing of the time period. The whole of the Harlem Renaissance writers are passed over, with only brief mention of Wright and Langston Hughes, and only briefly mentioned names like W.E.B. Du Bois. The criticism is far more focused on the development of the short story in terms of its development through white authors. While such a development is surely important, to claim that it will be a thorough discussion of the development and history of the American short story, it must deal with these authors of color.

The work also brushes over a discussion of modernism, preferring to label the 1930s as an era of a return to romanticism, which simplifies the narrative in order to place someone like Faulkner firmly outside of the movement, whether or not that is in and of itself a true statement. What is said of modernism is that Gertrude Stein was at first accepted for her experimentalism and then later spurned for what seemed to strange and mechanical. Otherwise, the discussion of realism, social realism, and naturalism in the literature of the midwest and the South are well covered in the discussion of the authors’ careers.

W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. Barnes and Noble Classics,



Summary of Work
In this nonfiction work, W.E.B. Du Bois discusses the problem of the color line in the United States through a series of essays that describe personal experiences black people have had, particularly in the South. He coins two terms that become of major importance in discussions of race: double consciousness and the Veil. The first term is meant as a representation of African-Americans being forced to live double lives because of irreconcilable, conflicting identities they have in the US: these being black identity and American identity, coming in that order. The Veil refers to black people living behind a curtain or veil from which they experience their own lives and the lives of the rest of Americans. They can see out to understand other people’s lives, but others cannot understand them or see their lives. His first essay describes how from the time of Reconstruction forward, black people realized that they would be treated differently based on skin color. Discussing the color line through Jim Crow, he states that there was the idea that the Freedman’s Bureau and education would be a panacea that would bring equality to African Americans, but with social barriers still in place, there would be no way for them to progress and overcome oppression, especially oppression in the South.

He also gives a strong critique of Booker T. Washington and his ideas about social progress: particularly about needing to accept a subordinate position, not focus so much on having the same level of education as white people, and not wanting political equality either; social peace was more important than social progress. While certainly Du Bois believed that Washington had done good in his work at Tuskegee, he thinks that Washington has done more damage than good because many black people are no longer willing to stand up for what is theirs and it is harder for black people who want to stand up to make any progress.

Du Bois also describes his time as a schoolteacher in the rural South, and he realizes the struggles of teaching in spaces where children have no opportunities and must work in the fields. When he returns years later, he finds that industrialized life has taken over the area, and that many of the students he taught are dead or sharecropping, not doing anything that would help better their lives. He then talks about how in Atlanta, Georgia, the point of life has become money and physical possessions, which has made many black people forget about what is important in life. He also says that with industrialization came a new form of slavery, because black people were trained for new jobs and how to be submissive in those jobs.

In discussion of this, Du Bois specifically mentions the problems of the justice system in the South, particularly in specific counties in Georgia. He states that the police in the South were primarily used to keep track of and manage slaves, and that hasn’t changed. Black people are arrested on the slightest offenses and then put in the peonage system and worked to death. Many black people are assigned this fate, and it makes the communities down there afraid and feeling trapped. It is not easy to escape the injustice of the law because the counties and states in the South all use the same labor system to make the South rich, and so they together hunt down the black people trying to leave the area. He also mentions the problems of the lien-system of sharecropping and states that it is essentially a form of slavery, and that the 40 acres and a mule dream that many African Americans had is completely erased from hope and reality. Very few black people are able to get land, and when they pay the white landowners for it, many times they are cheated and robbed.

Du Bois also recounts the death of his son in the book, and states that while he was happy when his son was born, he was also worried about him because he knew the challenges he would face. When the child died, he was sad but also somewhat relieved because he knew his son never had to experience the racial prejudice and live behind the Veil like he and all other black people had to. He then discusses the life of Alexander Crummell and tells about his struggles to deal with segregation once he became an educated priest and how he travelled the world to fight for what was right, even though he never felt fulfilled or satisfied. He also talks about a young man named John Jones who gets an education and returns home to find that he cannot be satisfied when he sees the inequality that was not so much visible in the North. He starts teaching, but under the direction that he is not to teach anything about social equality, and when the Judge hears that Jones is teaching about the French Revolution and it is causing people to not call white people sir or ma’am, he gets angry and shuts down the school. On the way back, he sees the judge’s son trying to sexually assault his younger sister, and he hits him with a branch and bloodies him up and knocks him out. He tells his mother he is going to leave and before he can, he is lynched.

The last chapter of the book focuses on the sorrow songs. Mostly spirituals, they describe the struggles and hardships that many black people faced. Christianity was the most important thing to preserve the ideals of redemption and salvation, especially when it came to some preservation of Obea belief systems. The songs carry with them vital information for the community as well as messages and hope for the future. This chapter has the most mixed media with song lyrics and song notations throughout the chapter. The book itself has a few lines of poetry and a line or two of musical notation to begin each chapter.

Discussion of Work
This work contributed to an important discussion about racial problems within America in the 1900s and forward. The concepts of the color line, the Veil, and double consciousness still play an important part of discussions of race and social equality today. One of the important discussions that I think is rarely had about the tensions between Washington and Du Bois is that Du Bois was not wholly against Washington, even though he was a strong critic. There were pieces of Washington’s work that he admired, and they both agreed on the importance of education, even if they disagreed about what should be taught and how the black race was to become educated.

One of the most important parts of this work which needs more time spent with it is the discussion of the peonage system. Having done field work about the peonage system and the effects it had on black communities only to have the US government refuse to publish the government committee’s findings and then destroy Du Bois’s work, he was very upset and concerned about the US’s huge efforts to cover up the fact that many black people were still enslaved through unjust judicial systems and corrupt cops in the South. Douglas A. Blackmon’s work Slavery by Another Name discusses this issue in depth, but the fact that Du Bois does more than simply reference it, but talks about it across chapters of his work, more fully describes the fear these people lived in.

One pitfall of this work is Du Bois’s very open prejudice toward Jews, especially if they are Russian Jews. He proclaims that many of the black man’s struggles come from greedy and unjust Jews cheating black people out of house and home and livelihood. The statements serve to highlight the racial tensions between the two minority groups, both of which were discriminated against in the US. The word Jew was later changed to immigrant by Du Bois in later publications of the work, indicating that perhaps either he overcame much of this prejudice or that it was brought to his attention that his prejudice was undermining his own argument (I’m not sure if this is discussed somewhere in scholarship or history, because I haven’t looked it up yet).

With all this discussion of race and social ills, it is telling that Du Bois also includes a whole chapter on the sorrow songs, a mix of spiritual and blues, although largely focused on the spirituals. While the title of the chapter is The Sorrow Songs, the songs themselves carry messages of hope to the next generation, indicating that music is a very important communication device in the community. It also indicates that Du Bois sees the music and the things connected with the music as retainers of not just hope, but the potential for social progress.

Thomas F. Defrantz, Editor, Dancing Many Drums: Excavations in African American Dance

Defrantz, Thomas F, ed. Dancing Many Drums: Excavations in African

American Dance. U of Wisconsin P, 2002.

Summary of Work
For the purposes of my comprehensive exam list studies and dissertation research, I read chapters 1 – 7 of this edited collection. The work broadly covers how African American dance has been perceived and performed from slavery to near the present day. Thomas F. Defrantz starts off the collection by briefly discussing the struggles of terminology for African American dance. He states that he will use the term black dance or black vernacular dance in spaces where there are only people of color present, but always uses African American dance to refer to the same thing in mixed cultural groups. The reasoning is complex, and largely revolves around the history of the term black dance: it was often used as a pejorative, a term that meant it was lesser than European dances like ballet. White dance critics did not understand the cultural underpinnings of the work and made no efforts to understand or learn, meaning that the reviews in the paper of performance works were often derogatory or backhandedly complimentary.

While there were two important works on African American dance in the mid 1900s—Jean and Marshall Stearns’ Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance and Lynne Fauley Emery’s Black Dance in the United States from 1619 to 1970—there are problems with both of those works. The Stearns put a focus on the term vernacular, making very clear that the dance styles they are talking about will never be high art or even really considered worthy of such a title. Emery’s work tries to document too much in travelogue form, and she doesn’t consider that there is more to these dances than race and the slavery-to-freedom narrative. Yet these two works are the foundation for the few other books that have been written on African American dance forms, and since the records on the dance forms are poor, there are a strange amount of methodological approaches taken to studying and writing about the dances. Defrantz states that the best scholarship out of the last decades of the twentieth century comes from scholars Kariamu Welsh Asante, Katrina Hazzard-Gordon, Jacqui Malone, and Brenda Dixon Gottschild. Their works have served to diversify the scholarship on African American dance.

P. Sterling Stuckey discusses the challenges of converting African religious dance tradition into Christian worship. He briefly discusses the forced dancing on the boats during the Middle Passage crossing, and then goes on to say that the fact that the dances remained even after that and all the oppression and hardship they faced proves the importance of dance in African culture. But since there was such a mix of tribes, the dancing changed to become a language of slavery and communication across cultural boundaries. Stuckey then moves his focus to the Ring Shout, discussing it as a form of worship that involved shouting praises and shuffling the feet side to side while in a circle. Despite the many attempts to stop the practice, black people found ways to keep it in their worship. Stuckey also states that these dances were able to cross from religious to secular, and that while many times the steps were the same, the context is what made the dance different; thus, much like the African understanding of secular versus sacred, the line between the two is blurred. He states that Frederick Douglass and James Baldwin best describe the function and uses of these dances, citing Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain specifically as an example: the character Elisha performs a solo form of Ring Shout in the church as he dances and the crowd and preacher join in, creating something almost akin to Juba. The novel also contains prime examples of the Ring Shout in communal form at the church as it is done to tambourines and piano music, indicating that the Ring Shout is a very important and all-encompassing religious experience for these black Christian communities.

Nadine A. George discusses the struggles that black female vaudeville performers faced when going on the circuit. She focuses specifically on the Whitman sisters, discussing their rise as gospel focused performers and then moving away from the gospel performance to do vaudeville shows. They were light skinned, meaning that they could pass as white, and they performed on both the white vaudeville circuit and the TOBA circuit. George states that to their credit, they never did deny their black racial heritage, and yet that also brought its own set of challenges. These women, in order to “look black,” donned blackface and performed in it for most of the show. They also performed some stereotypical acts in order to keep the crowd pleased, and they were often fighting to get paid the rates that they had been promised. They were also in charge of being matriarchs to the picks that they had traveling with them, knowing that if they didn’t take good care of the children, it would ruin their business. At the same time as all of this was going on, they also often dyed their hair blonde and came out on stage for one number without the blackface, confusing many audiences because they wondered what white women were doing on stage during a black minstrel/vaudeville performance. They also had crossdressing acts, which challenged expected gender norms. Their business acumen and talent made these women the longest running vaudeville performing group, and they gave many great dancers their start, including Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. In spending more time looking at the challenges, both gender and racial, they faced to accomplish all of this, George hopes their work will be more widely recognized and studied.

Marya Annette McQuirter discusses the myth of black people having natural dance talent, particularly focusing her studies on the 1940s forward. She states that there are problems with that precisely because every dancer goes through an awkward learning stage, but that stage is never represented in any studies or literature. Taking Malcolm X’s autobiography as an examples, she states that he goes directly from being unable to dance from lack of experience to a top jitterbug dancer magically: it is his African heritage that mysteriously gives him the ability rather than teachers helping him through awkward learning stages. It is narratives like that which put fuel on the fire of the stereotype of the natural black dancer. McQuirter states that there were many black people, especially those coming from the countryside, who did not dance and could not dance. If they wanted to go out on the town when they moved to the cities, they then had to go through an awkward learning stage in order to be able to dance at the clubs. As a parting statement, McQuirter asks her readers to realize that “The dance arena . . . did not offer a retreat from this awkwardness, but it was where women and men worked out the complex and difficult moves required to navigate the new and different terrain of urban centers throughout the United States at mid-twentieth century” (99).

Richard C. Green focuses on the career of Pearl Primus, a phenomenal black dancer who made many of her choreographic works about social issues (including the famous choreography to Billy Holliday’s Strange Fruit). Learning her dancing skill set at the New Dance Group’s school on a scholarship, she was influenced by the government’s efforts to use art to placate a people ready to riot. Her work was also shaped by the Harlem Renaissance, with figures like Locke and Hughes and Garvey speaking out about how to solve the “Negro Problem.” When she made her professional debut, she was very well received, and yet at the same time she did not rise to the fame that Josephine Baker and other lighter skinned performers did. Primus was considered a “real” black dancer due to her skin color combined with her dance movement choices. She did perform on Broadway and in an opera, and she staged many performances, some of which had lukewarm receptions, Given her history, it is troubling to Green that Primus is being used as a rebranding tool for both black dance and modern dance, her history being revised or erased in places that it becomes no longer a full picture of Primus. The revisionism reveals a truly American Dilemma where people feel they have to choose between calling Primus a black dancer and calling her a modern dancer. With revisionism like this occurring to push specific racialized agendas, it becomes even more important to be able to preserve a full picture of Primus as a dancer.

Marcia E. Heard and Mansa K. Mussa give a brief overview of African people like Asadata Dafora and Katherine Dunham who started African dance companies in NYC, many of which still operate today, although only three companies in the country are internationally recognized: Ko-Thi, Muntu Dance Theater, and the African American Dance Ensemble.

Sally Banes and John F. Szwed discuss the history of the instructional dance songs, which create a form of dance notation for people to learn popular dances of the time. They state that the instruction song was a long-standing tradition among black communities, where they would use songs to call out dance steps. The songs were always only part of the picture for learning the dance: the songs assumed some level of familiarity with dance steps that would be taught in communities or at parties on a dance floor. There would be people present who could help others who were unfamiliar with the dances learn. The songs take many forms that reassure the listeners that the dances are popular, that everyone is doing them, that they are easy to learn, and that they should learn it too. They give examples in the text such as “Mashed Potato Time” and “The Locomotion” as well as “The Monkey” and “The Twist” and “The Jerk.” The songs had declined by the 60s but saw a revamp in the 70s with the Disco age, but the songs were much less specific with their instruction. The only place that such songs seem to exist in the present day is in country line dances done to country music. Banes and Szwed conclude by stating that these instruction songs contradict Adorno’s belief that popular music was an opiate, because these songs required their audiences to pay close attention, and they were encoded with specific cultural and communal knowledge. The one problem that the instructional song poses is that of appropriation: by making the moves mainstream, they are often watered down and found bereft of their cultural heritage.

Veta Golar discusses the blues aesthetic, stating that it is more than just sad songs and hard times, but comes to embody “(1) art that is contemporary, that is created in our time, (2) creative expresssions of artists who are empathetic with African American issues and ideals, (3) work that identifies with and reflects popular or mass black American culture, (4) art that has an affinity with African/U.S.–derived music and/or rhythms, and (5) artists and/or artistic statements whose raison d’être is humanistic” (206). These aesthetic ideals combine to create something that is important to cultural production and black art forms. Golar states that Albert Murray’s belief is that it focuses and relies very much on vernacular. Therefore, the popular is the heart of the blues aesthetic. This aesthetic also opens up the blues to non-black artists. She looks at Dianne McIntyre’s work to discuss how the blues aesthetic can be seen in modern dance, stating that the rhythms she uses are a big part of that aesthetic. She performed many different dances that included dances which highlighted black cultural roots. Her aesthetic movement choices made the blues aesthetic clearer and more accessible to many audiences outside of black cultural audiences and connects those experiences to other people’s lives; her work is a form of cultural outreach.

Discussion of Work
The theory section of this collection will be very useful to me for my dissertation for a number of reasons, but perhaps most importantly that there is a reference to James Baldwin’s work in the piece on Christianity and AfAm Dance. Stuckey’s chapter specifically deals with not only the cultural importance of the Ring Shout but also the transference of that tradition into literary culture. The dance is an entryway to understand the cultural importance of the religious worship in Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain. The presence of the Ring Shout multiple times throughout the work demonstrates that it is important to be aware of the dance’s cultural importance in order to properly read or analyze the work as a whole and its representation of black church worship services. The literature is as much a cultural artifact as the dances, and it requires readers to have a level of cultural competency in order to fully understand and appreciate the works instead of consume them and appropriate the material for our own popular or scholarly purposes. This is particularly true of scholars, who have argumentative agendas in writing about these works: refusing to acknowledge the important cultural points in the work becomes an act of assimilation into the broader term of Western, and therefore white, culture.

Generally speaking, the collection brings up important discussion questions: should we be referring to the dances done as black vernacular dances, African American dances, idiom dances, or something different from all of those? How can words, performers, and dances be reclaimed from a pejorative history? At what point is someone appropriating black art forms (in creating, using, consuming without knowledge of the roots of the art form)? What motivations do we as writers have when we approach this rich cultural history to make arguments about the dances’ validity? How can we avoid the dangers of the need to create an “Africanist” notion of African American dance?


Randall Jarrell, Poetry & The Age

Jarrell, Randall. Poetry & The Age. Ecco P, 1980.

Summary of Work
In this critical work, Randall Jarrell discusses the age of Modernism in poetry as well as the criticism surrounding that poetry. He states that while there is much lament over the current state of poetry readership, or rather the lack of readership, that there is nothing that poets can do about it except for to continue writing and attracting their current readers, because the world will only get noisier as new technologies take hold of people who once would have been readers. He also insists that poets need to make sure that their work is quality and that references and obscurity serve a purpose rather than simply being there in order for the work to be called poetry.

Jarrell takes a look at Robert Frost’s work, and he states that despite Frost’s later work, which is often filled with a conservative and overimportant and self-indulgent attitude, he is one of the best poets of the age. He specifically cites “Frost’s obsessive themes, those of isolation, of extinction, and of the final limitations of man” as reasoning for his high designation of Frost and his work, despite the poems that he finds less quality. The main argument for his awarding Frost the rank of great poet is the nonchalant and matter-of-fact way in which Frost puts forth the previously mentioned themes in his work.

Looking at the age he lives in, Jarrell states that criticism has caused less and less literature to be written, and just as importantly, less and less literature to be read. In an age that thrives on critics’ readings of supposedly great literature, both the average reader and the scholar spend more time reading criticism than actually reading literature, and therefore, when asked about important works of literature, they cannot answer that they’ve read them, because they have been too focused on criticism, most of which is dull and useless to the larger populace. Jarrell believes that criticism and theory evolved in English departments much as statistics and raw data and studies evolved in psychology and sociology: scholars in those fields did not want to be looked down upon by the hard sciences, so they found a way to make their field look like scientific fields. The problem with this for English is that it’s made people come to rely on critics’ readings of literature instead of coming to an understanding of the literature themselves. It’s also caused the USA to largely disregard poetry, since so few critics write about it and deal with it in comparison to fiction works.

Of John Ransom, Jarrell states that he is writing in the time of Modernism and is yet not a Modernist; Ransom’s poems are far too structured and perfect in their form to be Modernist (which one doesn’t find surprising when knowing that Ransom is the founder of New Criticism). His poetry ranks among the great poetry because of the way the form helps to make matters of morality and living ambiguous: people are unsure whether they should be looking at light and dark as good and bad, or if they should at once be rooting for both and neither.

Of Walt Whitman, Jarrell states that while many critics have lamented his work and are not ashamed of saying they have never read it, Whitman’s work is in fact great poetry. He states that certainly, there are many mistakes and failings of the work, which any critic can tell you. However, many critics fail to understand that the sentimentality of the work combined with the bombastic and often ridiculous use of language and the disorganized forms of many of his poems are what make the work great. Rather than stick to forms as Tennyson did, Whitman chooses not to limit his subject matter with form, and instead experiment with language and organization to capture what is the heart of America.

Wallace Stevens, he states, has much of a tourist feel to his work, which many readers resent. His poems that fail are the ones that strive to be philosophy, and poetry is a bad format for philosophical musings in Jarrell’s opinion. Yet Stevens shines when writing about the similarities between America and Europe, and creates forms that eloquently speak clear messages to his readers. He goes on to give more, similar readings of other American poets’ work, such as Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams. Indeed, he finds that Stevens and Moore and Williams have much in common, but that it is far harder to anthologize Williams in any adequate way.

Discussion of Work
To start with my criticism of this work, it would largely be how vague that Jarrell is in his analysis of the poets whose work he chooses to look at. He outright admits in the beginning of his work that he finds Frost to be one of the best poets of his generation, which may be why he has a hard time doing anything but broadly stating that Frost has his small failing points while overwhelmingly focusing on what he likes most about Frost’s work. He does a much better job of critiquing poets like Whitman, when even when striving to defend his work, he can admit the many shortcomings of the poetry.

However, his discussion of the problem of the age of criticism is worth keeping in mind when looking at the current state of scholarship. A scholar in today’s world can hardly expect to be taken seriously if they don’t know the major names in criticism and theory; the literature often seems secondary in scholarship to the response academics have to other critics. I’ve heard many of my colleagues (and even myself) say that it is fine to have not read a work of literature if they have read the scholarship on it, because the scholarship will tell them all they need to know anyway. Often in graduate courses, we are told to start reading the scholarship about a work during, or even before, we read the work of literature itself. This scholarship can come in the form of introductory materials at the beginning of a new edition of the work, critical reviews, or scholarly articles from peer-reviewed journals. While I am certainly not a New Critic, I do believe that it is important to spend time with literature first and foremost, as that is the field we are in, the field of literature. Scholarship is secondary material, especially given that its subject matter should be literature (in my opinion).

Chinua Achebe, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness'”

Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of

Darkness.” Massachusetts Review, 1977,,-


Summary of Work
In this article, Achebe discusses the racism that the West holds, particularly in its views of Africa. He builds his argument around Joseph Conrad’s famous novel Heart of Darkness, the story of a narrator’s journey through the Congo to find one Mr. Kurtz. He states that the images, particularly in Conrad’s obsession with blackness and the darkness of not just the Natives’ skin color, but the land itself, shows Africa as the antithesis to England and the rest of the civilized world: Conrad is obsessed with the primitive nature of Africa and its people in an attempt to show that Europe was able to conquer that darkness, but that there is danger in interacting with people and places who have not yet conquered that savagery, because the savagery could engulf the civilized and lead them back to primitivism.

Conrad is unkind to the native peoples in his novel, showing them always in a frenzy, or dying, or otherwise running around. They are not given language, but grunts and sounds and physical actions. The only two times when they are given language are when they are cannibals asking for people to eat or the slave man telling the narrator that Mr. Kurtz is dead: those examples, Achebe states, are purposeful in that they are made to show how horrific these people are and how awful the state they are in as black people. Given these images, it is clear that Conrad is racist, and it is surprising to Achebe that in all the years of scholarship, no one seems to even want to admit that or deal with it. It is a blind spot in the Western world because people in the West have so long used Africa as a foil of themselves, insisting that Africa is as backward as Europe is enlightened. So when people say that they are not aware that Africa has art or history, it is part of that tradition of racism and colonialism. In order for any good or real communication between Africa and Europe and North America to happen, the West must first relinquish its long-held beliefs about the primitiveness of the African continent and the African people.

Discussion of Work
This piece discusses racism in a way that I think is very telling: it shows that what has happened is that the West has fallen prey to a single story about Africa. A single story is powerful, in that it can give people motivations or reasons to conquer or oppress people in the name of “saving” them or bringing them enlightenment of some sort. But as powerful as those stories are, they are also wrong and dangerous because they allow for people to do terrible things by dehumanizing others. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses a very similar thing in a TED Talk that she gives called “The Danger of the Single Story,” where she states that her teachers once told her that her novel was not “authentically African” because people were not poor, starving, or otherwise destitute or unenlightened: her characters looked too much like the average Western person.

The image of Africa and its people as backwards and primitive exists in many forms today, including that we group the whole African continent together as a group and remain largely ignorant to the fact that Africa is composed of many countries, just like the Americas Europe, and Asia. The issues set forth by Achebe in his essay are still very prominent today in that by and large, no one seems to question the idea of the single story of Africa as exactly what Conrad set forth, despite the fact that it was never that way, that there were diverse people, languages, art, and nations. And today, while there certainly are areas of Africa that have poor and starving people who cannot read and live what the West would consider primitive lives, there are far more people who are living in sophisticated cities with functioning governments and thriving businesses; there are people who create wonderful art and products and enjoy many different activities that Western people also enjoy.

The power dynamics inherent in the way we discuss Africa and its people says much about the Western world’s continued need for dominance: a way to prove that they are still more enlightened than the people who live on and descend from ancestors on the African continent. I agree with Achebe’s statement that we cannot just hand the West a happy pass on this issue or offer them a positive note to end the discussion on. Such a positivity cannot come until the West chooses to change its views and discussions on Africa, because the way it is currently being discussed is wrong, and there should be no cookies given out for fixing something that should never have been considered acceptable in the first place.

Langston Hughes, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”

Hughes, Langston. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” 1926. Modern

American Poetry,

Summary of Work
Langston Hughes discusses his belief that black poets should not be ashamed of themselves as black people or strive to be white in any way in order to be a successful poet. He speaks of a young poet with much potential who told him that he didn’t want to be known as a “Negro poet,” and it made him incredibly sad because he knew what type of upbringing this man had had. Hughes states that people like this grew up in affluent black homes and had parents who were constantly striving to be white, using examples of black people who enjoyed jazz and dancing and clubs as the worst sort of people, the type of people that this young man should stay away from. Yet, it is precisely this desire to get away from one’s own culture that is so problematic in Hughes’ mind, especially if a black person wants to be a good writer. For him, culture is a large part of writing, and so the desire to be white and to rid oneself of one’s culture is antithetic to being a great poet or writer. Instead, a writer should embrace their culture, learn that “black is beautiful,” and pursue writing about what they want within that black cultural framework.

Discussion of Work
I find that this work is very indicative of the times it was written in, and yet is still prescient today. The idea of “black is beautiful” is important, particularly in the circumstances Hughes outlines: shame about one’s skin color, race, and culture is never a good place to come from as a writer, and acceptance of oneself is necessary in order to live a full life. And yet, the piece itself seems to impose restrictions upon writers, restrictions that we in fact see historically during the height of the Harlem Renaissance: the rule of insisting on creating “black” art means that if a writer decides to write about a topic that is not about African American life, they will not be considered an artist or a quality writer by the black academic and literary elite.

Yet this idea of African American writers embodying their culture so much that it becomes the sole focus of their writing has certainly had staying power in the academy and in the general literary world. The African American writers who seem to have staying power or are popular are writers like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Colson Whitehead, to name a few. These people are writing about black history, black experience, and black culture, and are finding ways to represent silenced voices. Writers who choose other topics, like Ishmael Reed, are often missing from African American literature course reading lists, precisely because of this idea that black writers must write about black subjects in specific historical, oppressed or deteriorating positions where their characters must overcome violence and injustice. But writers like Reed write quality literature which encompasses stories not specific to black historical and current representation. Indeed, Reed is one of those authors who would have bothered Hughes because he insists that his racial identity should not be indicative of his writing choices and quality.

Certainly, the idea of writing about what you know is an important one, and yet it is also detrimental when it does not allow for writers to break the boundaries of what other groups, including subgroups of the same race, set for our writers. It becomes exclusionary of different types of experiences, excluding even the groups of black elites or white-skinned black people that Hughes discusses in his essay. It speaks directly to what bell hooks stated about the importance of allowing multiple experiences, because when we only allow for specific stories to exist about a culture and people, we isolate large groups of people and lose their voices in the conversation.

Barbara Christian, “A Race for Theory”

Christian, Barbara. “A Race for Theory.” Feminist Studies, vol. 14, no. 1, 1988,

pp. 67-79.


Summary of Work
In her article “A Race for Theory,” Barbara Christian outlines her concerns about the current academic need to constantly be creating theories to discuss old, canon literature and other critical theorists: “‘For whom are we doing what we are doing when we do literary criticism?'” she asks (77). In asking this question, she discusses how theory has subordinated looking at literature itself, and there are only an elite few who are being published because of their ability to create new literary theories to discuss older philosophers and critical theorists. This means that very few people are determining what the larger world of academia should find valuable and important to discuss. Consequently, this largely leaves out writers of color and current writers, instead always hearkening backward to older works of white, European literature.

By only allowing Western philosophical structures of critical theory, other forms of theorizing are left out. For black literatures, Christian states that “theorizing . . . is often in narrative forms, in the stories we create, in riddles and proverbs, in the play with language, because dynamic rather than fixed ideas seem more to our liking” (68). When such a form of theorizing is not allowed to be written about or explored in the academy, it silences many scholars who have much to contribute and instead allows for gross generalizations to abound in literary theory regarding various cultures and experiences. In place of such a structure, Christian suggests theorists should shift their focus “to the intricacies of the intersection of language, class, race, and gender in literature” that is inclusive of many different ways of reading literature, including literature currently published and literature from different cultures.

As academics have chosen to privilege the white, Western European and American works of literature, they have created a binary of minority and major or centered, and that creates a skewed view of literature. By refusing to accept world literatures as part of the major narrative, academics writing about literature have missed out on discussing many histories and messages, some of which they have recently come across even though the rest of the world has known about them for decades. Literature studies have recently decided to include more world literatures, but only a few, and has finally decided that literature is, in fact, political (even though it always was). And yet, perhaps because of the centering of the Western gaze, many academics have failed to ask important questions about why this change has occurred, why it is now okay to accept literature as political and influenced by social and cultural surroundings. Literary theories contribute to the problem by mystifying the process of that change through strange language that only an elite few can access. And as the focus has become more and more on discussing this mystifying language in critical theory, fewer and fewer scholars are discussing literature. Christian sees this as a response to the rise of minority literatures in our current cultural moment, and the focus on theory is a way to continue to exclude those literatures from academic study.

While she sees theory as necessary, Christian finds it problematic because it becomes very prescriptivist and elitist. Theory desires “to make the world less complex by organizing it according to one principle, to fix it through an idea which is really an ideal,” and often this “dehumanizes people by stereotyping them, by denying them their variousness and complexity” (75). Instead of creating such methods that require monolithic prescriptivism, Christian suggests that academics get back to the literature and learn from the history and language provided in that literature. A focus on literature means that each novel will require constructing a new critical approach rather than applying old philosophical, prescriptivist theories to novels without considering how the novel itself can teach readers how it is meant to be read and discussed.

Discussion of Work
This short essay details many of the previous concerns I’ve discussed in small groups with my colleagues: the academy does not value new scholarship unless it can be placed in the theories of philosophers like Foucault, Freud, and Derrida. Our choices for writing feel limited, even when we feel we have much to say, because we cannot break from the critical theory realm if we wish to be published in peer reviewed journals. Even areas such as gender and race studies utilize the same prescriptivist methods of theory to discuss works in a broad and generalized sense, spending more time with the theory than with the literature they are discussing.

I do not mean to suggest that this is the case with all theory, however. Since this piece was written, I have, in my academic reading, found many more discussions of Toni Morrison and other black female writers, and there have been discussions of the literature through close reading and a focus on language and culture rather than through specific theorists. Writing was coming out the same year that this was written which offered those tools, specifically thinking of Henry Louis Gates, Jr’s work Signifying Monkey. Still, when compared with White Western literature written in the same period as Morrison and Walker and other black and minority writers, there is far too little discussion and theory going on regarding these writers’ works, forcing them further and further into obscurity.

Morrison is the one writer who has largely escaped this lack of theoretical discussion, largely due to her worldwide acclaim from winning a Nobel Prize. And yet, shouldn’t other writers who have less acclaim than the top level awards also be given similar amounts of consideration? There are many white authors who are given just as much consideration as Morrison and have far fewer awards to their names. While there has been improvement in the field of academics regarding the consideration of what have been deemed “minority literatures,” many of the concerns Christian voiced are still large concerns within academia today, where teaching and discussion of literature is devalued in preference of critical theory creation and publication.